When an Illiterate Man Was Asked to Read

Diamonds in the Rough: Iqra! Bismi Rabbik (Read! In the Name of your Lord) by Asheeq Art
Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured Topics: Prophet Muhammad (S), Quran Views: 605

When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) received his first revelation, he did not know how to read or write. 23 years later, having fulfilled his prophethood mission, he died without knowing how to read or write. To make things more intriguing, his greatest miracle was a book, the Holy Qur’an, which challenged the whole of humankind to produce at any point of time and in any geographical context a single surah (chapter) the like thereof, if they were in doubt about the authenticity of the Qur’an; he made knowledge seeking incumbent upon every Muslim, male and female, and produced a reading community that always prided itself on the intellectual and cultural legacies it created; he sowed the seeds of a civilization that changed the course of human history forever, the hallmarks of which were always knowledge, science and wisdom.

When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) received his first revelation in the Cave of Hira’ through the angel Jibril (Gabriel), he was asked to read (iqra’). However, since he was an ordinary person, who could not judge things and events except by conventional earthly standards, he was astounded, replying both with fear and astonishment: “I am not literate (I cannot read)”. He was asked two more times to read, but after each time he answered that he was not literate and so, couldn’t read. After that, the angel conveyed the intended first revelation: “Read in the name of your Lord Who created; created man from a clinging substance. Read, and your Lord is the most Generous Who taught by the pen; taught man that which he knew not” (al-‘Alaq, 1-5).

In the above incident, there was an encounter between -- or a convergence of -- two types of reading. The first type was a conventional one that stood for a process of decoding symbols so as to construct or derive meaning, which was represented by Muhammad (pbuh) who was yet to be appointed the prophet.

The second type of reading was put forth, and was represented, by the angel Jibril. It was a new heavenly reading paradigm, which was hitherto unknown. It was a divine gift from the Creator to His creation.

On account of this, it is understandable why both the Prophet (pbuh) and Jibril persisted in their respective ways. To the Prophet (pbuh), it was strange to be asked to read, for he was unread. Thus, he could not say anything except that he was illiterate.

But to Jibril, such by no means was a bizarre act, for he was laying down a ground-breaking vision of reading that transcended everything man had previously known. That Jibril asked the Prophet (pbuh) three times to read, before giving him the first revelation, every time seizing the Prophet (pbuh) and pressing him so hard that he could hardly bear it, could connote waking him completely up from the worldliness of his being, thought and experience, and preparing him fully for the import and weight of the words that were to follow – and of the prophethood mission in general.

The new reading paradigm was summed up in the given revelation.

The Prophet (pbuh) was asked first and foremost to read and recite the Qur’an which was revealed directly upon his heart (al-Shu’ara’, 194). He thus always felt as though the Qur’an had been engraved on his heart. His reading and reciting of the Qur’an was coming from the heart and was targeting people’s hearts as well before anything else. Such was happening effortlessly and naturally. No even slightest reading mistakes, hesitation, stuttering, messing up, or failing to remember was ever recorded about the Prophet (pbuh), irrespective of the oscillating general circumstances and the psychological as well as physical conditions of the Prophet (pbuh).

The Qur’an is a book of signs (ayat), guidance, clear proofs and criterion, the ultimate objective of which is to be applied in everyday life. However, life with its multitiered realities is also made replete with signs (ayat), guidance and clear proofs, which are as manifest in the slightest and most modest as in the grandest and most sophisticated.

Hence, implementing and living the Qur’an signify an amalgamation of its ayat, guidance and clear proofs with the same, entailed in the life phenomena, in order that the purpose and objective of existence are achieved. Reading the Qur’an, it follows, means also reading and exploring life as a locus of the implementation of the former. It likewise denotes reading life’s infinite portents and signs (ayat), serving as an indispensable supplement to the proper reading, comprehending and applying of the signs (ayat) and messages of the Qur’an.

No reading of the Qur’an is complete without reading life, and no reading of life is appropriate without reading the Qur’an, because the Qur’an is meant for life, and life, in turn, is steered and sustained by the Qur’an. The only solution for man, therefore, is the combination of two readings. The solution is about quality, rather than quantity. It is about devising most effective methods and most productive outcomes for real life and its gripping challenges, rather than excessive rhetoric, idealism and abstract theorizing. It is perhaps no coincidence that iqra’ as an imperative is derived from the verb qara’, which means not only to read, but also to combine, integrate and bring things together.

This spirit is implied in Almighty Allah’s words that reading should be done only in the name of “your Lord Who created; created man from a clinging substance”. This means that reading should be done solely for the divine -- not personal or any other – goals, and for the realization of a higher order of things and their meanings, for such is the implication of the concepts of lordship (rububiyyah) and servitude (‘ubudiyyah) that stand at the core of the Islamic message.

Similarly, it means that Allah’s creation is to be read as much and as fervently as His revelation, as both are His and have originated from Him. Their objectives are identical: to reveal and disseminate the truth at all planes of the life phenomenon. Thus, the “read” injunction and Allah’s attribute as the Creator are communicated together.

This is further accentuated by the subsequent words that Allah is “the most Generous Who taught by the pen; taught man that which he knew not”. Granting man the Qur’an as a revealed book, as well as an ontological “qur’an” or the “book” of creation (al-qur’an al-takwini) is a sign of Almighty Allah being most Kind and Generous to man in his capacity as Allah’s vicegerent on earth. Allah further granted man every means and opportunity to succeed in his projected task. Failure is not an option and can never be justified.

The new reading paradigm brought by the angel Jibril in the cave Hira’ was about the reading of revelation (the Qur’an), life with all its dimensions, and the self. It was as comprehensive and holistic as the Prophet’s mission itself. The new reading was at once physical, cerebral and spiritual, corresponding to the character of its aim: man and life, as well as the heavens and the earth. A person, it goes without saying, may be illiterate, but a good, insightful and knowledgeable reader. In the same vein, a person may be educated and literate, but ignorant and unwise. True knowledge is identified with light and guidance. It is a guarantee of success and happiness in both worlds. Hence, though illiterate, the Prophet (pbuh) was the most knowledgeable, most enlightened and wisest man that ever lived.

Towards Reviving the Iqra’ Concept

No wonder this awareness led to the creation of a powerful Islamic civilization whose most conspicuous characteristics revolved around the notions of knowledge, education, wisdom and science. It was a civilization of learning (reading), which was caused and sustained by learning and learned (reading) generations. Such was an engine of Muslim civilizational growth and cultural enrichment through centuries. It was only when such a spirit was lost that Islamic civilization started declining, and the Muslim community started losing ground to other nations and their less adequate patterns of civilizational progress.

Today in the age of globalization, as Muslims grow more and more desperate in their quest to restore their cultural and civilizational identity and respect from others, they should know that the only way forward is the revivification of the universal concept of iqra’ (read!), as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Hira’ Cave, and everything such concept entails. That endeavour would bring an end to many alien, inept and outright useless alternatives Muslims have adopted in recent times in order to fill the void left by their gradual abandoning of the original iqra’ scheme.

If revived, the authentic iqra’ process would minimize memorization – unfortunately often associated with little or no understanding whatsoever – replacing it with a combination of better comprehension and practical application of knowledge. In passing, memorization in the past, when there was no technology and books were either rare or extremely expensive, was something, and memorization today, in the era of technology and when books are both easily available and affordable, is something else. Today almost every Muslim has downloaded on his smartphone – a gadget without which, in actual fact, life is unimaginable -- the Qur’an with its translations and numerous commentaries, anthologies of the Prophet’s sunnah, encyclopaedic works on fiqh, sirah, Muslim history, etc. Every aspect of Islamic knowledge is constantly with a person and is available at his fingertips. Everyone is a walking encyclopaedia, so to speak, in the sense that practically everyone has limitless access to limitless knowledge at all times.

Accordingly, talking about memorization today should not be in the sense of preservation and safeguarding – as it was in the past; hence the word hifz, which means safeguarding, and which is used for memorization -- in that everything is already painstakingly preserved and safeguarded. This is in no way a call for abolishing memorization in Islamic scholarship. However, it is a call to seriously reconsider it and revisit its scope.

Nor should just reading a book – or books – and teaching notes from PowerPoint be the way. As a lecturer myself, I often wonder what my role in teaching Islamic studies today should exactly be. To keep saying – and repeating -- things every single student has on his smartphone, or can easily find on a website and in numerous library books, certainly is not the way either. That way, coming to a class is tantamount to wasting time. Reading alone in a hostel room, or productively spending the same time in a library, is a better option by all accounts.

Indeed, teaching and learning in classes ought to be more challenging, more provoking, more productive, more eye-and-mind opening and more real-world an experience. Sometimes I tell my students in certain Islamic studies courses that if they at the end start asking questions they never asked before, or they start looking at some absorbing life issues and challenges from perspectives they never did before -- that will be regarded as a great success. Or if they realize that they do not know and genuinely need to know, or that they can identify voids in their personal lives and, at the same time, know where exactly to go to pursue solutions -- that, too, will be seen as a great leap forward.

I keep encouraging them to “read” and investigate themselves and their lives honestly, pragmatically and ingeniously. It is better to have genuine questions than faulty or sub-standard answers. It is better to be life-oriented than good marks-obsessed, or driven. The former stimulates and galvanises, whereas the latter deludes and debilitates. It is in this context that I am starting to feel more and more inclined towards the modern theory of outcome-based education, according to which no single specified style of teaching or assessment is adopted, and where the role of a lecturer adapts into teacher, trainer, instructor, facilitator, and/or mentor based on the specified and adopted outcomes.

Moreover, conducting Islamic studies programs need also be thoroughly re-evaluated. Such programs during most turbulent periods of Muslim history have been divested of their true meaning, dynamism and purpose. Instead of being man and life-oriented, promoting and facilitating the creation of righteous cultures and civilization – as implied by the iqra’ (read!) imperative – they became synonymous with mediocrity, regress, apathy and narrow-mindedness.

One wonders, therefore, about the benefits of meticulously studying today, for example, some minor long-extinct religious sects, some endless -- at times utterly meaningless -- debates in the fields of philosophy, ‘ilm al-kalam (Islamic scholastic theology), Sufism and even fiqh (jurisprudence) and tafsir (exegesis of the Qur’an). It is unfathomable, for example, that while Muslims are today on the brink of total and all-consuming sectarian conflicts, many Islamic educational programs actively participate in exacerbating the predicament by the ways they teach certain sensitive historical episodes, theological doctrines and jurisprudential questions. As is inexplicable, in equal measure, that numerous irrelevant and outmoded topics are dealt with lengthily – with countless books and theses being filled with them -- while a great many pressing issues that aim to afflict the Muslim youth, Muslim politics, economics, education and human relations are either ignored or tackled only sporadically and superficially.

Furthermore, if the spirit of iqra’ is revived, there will be no separation between religion and any aspect, or dimension, of life. This is so because Islam is life, and life, in turn, is Islam, in that it represents and mirror the same truth. The truth of the Qur’an is the truth of the multidimensional life phenomenon. Islam, it goes without saying, is to be lived, rather than practiced. It is to be experienced, rather than just talked about.

That said, as the most ideal and somewhat farfetched implication of iqra’, having separate Islamic studies educational departments and programs, should be reduced to a minimum, or be done away with altogether – except in cases with very specialized character, objectives and scope. However, this is just concerning departments and programs, not Islamic studies as such. The latter should be integrated in all other educational programs that normally stand for different aspects of everyday life. The process of integration should be so seamless and harmonious that the students of a program, while learning about the chosen academic field of theirs, learn about Islam as well, without developing a feeling that the same has been unwittingly imposed upon them.

Thus, when the students learn about the worldview(s) that underpins any branch, or field, of knowledge, they will learn at length about the Islamic worldview, belief system and values, and how that branch, or field, of knowledge is to be turned into a beneficial civilizational component for Muslims and humankind at large. When they talk about professional codes of ethics, Islamic ethics and its application will be learned and discussed extensively. The implications of the same for the whole community will also be dwelled on. The legal aspects of various knowledge fields will bring the students face to face with Islamic shari’ah and fiqh. Moreover, the subjects of history will focus chiefly on the history of Islam, Muslim peoples and Islamic culture and civilization. That will create a framework from which every other aspect of human history and civilization will be studied.

Finally, every program will aim to make of a student an excellent, holistic and righteous man (and woman) ready to make a positive contribution in every context he (she) might find himself (herself) in, including the context of his (her) professional life. In this way, the students will become both better professionals and better Muslims.

Indeed, it is high time that Muslims stop embracing and practicing virtual illiteracy in the name of education and cultural development.


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  1. Able2b1

    I have for a long time questioned why it is told to the world that our Prophet (the prayers and the Peace be upon him) was unable to read and write. Of course, I understand the concept of "ummi". However, how do we reconcile belief in that concept---at least in the way that it is perhaps commonly believed in and understood----with the report in the hadiths that the prophet offered wartime captives their freedom in exchange for teaching one or more members in the largely illiterate---truly unable to read or write---nascent ummah? Do we not think that he would also have learned to read and write---presupposing that he could not already read and write? Or are we to believe that the prophet failed to follow even the simple but reasonable and wise advice that travelers on the airlines are given every day, which is that, "in case of an emergency...place the oxygen mask on yourself first before trying to help someone else". In other words, what could be more basic to receiving revelation that commands him to read than himself learning to read? I know we have not and are not inclined to think like this having been indoctrinated with the notion that our illustrious leader and example could not read and write and believing therefore that somehow lacking such fundamental skills adds to his eminence. Allah instructed him to declare that he was a bashiroon just like all of us and therefore like his common followers in the nascent ummah who he got another human being to assist them in learning to read and write, he too would have taken advantage of the same if he needed it. In other words, he would have put the mask on first before looking to help others.